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Abstract

In this paper, we propose ideas for teaching presidential debates within the university classroom setting. In particular, we explore methods for helping students to break through partisan and ideological barriers that might inhibit their understanding of and ability to analyze candidates’ messages. If debates are to fulfill their original purpose of creating a more informed and responsible electorate, it is first essential that viewers give each nominee a full and fair hearing. We begin our discussion with a brief history of presidential debates, emphasizing both the presentations of the candidates and how those presentations have been distorted by media analysis, particularly the general emphasis on style and trivia over substance. We then address the cognitive filters that all viewers—including students—bring to these events. Next, we introduce several ideas for disarming these filters. Finally, we conclude by addressing the potential of debates to help political science professors create better prepared voters.

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